Friday, March 27, 2009

At least/The least

When bad things happen, or when someone says something bad, sometimes we want to recognize the negative but also emphasize the positive. I call this defensive optimism. In this type of situation, we often use the expression at least.

Using at least for Measurement

In its most basic use, at least is used for measuring quantities of a physical object.

- That guy weighs at least ninety kilograms.

- There must be at least nine people in that car!

Using at least to be Defensive or Optimistic

However, there is a more common use of at least among native English speakers. It does relate to minimums, but is used in very different situations. Consider the following conversation.

A: You're stupid and you're ugly.
B: At least I have friends.

In this conversation, it is important to note that B is not really disagreeing with A. In fact, B is almost acknowledging the truth of A's statement. The use of at least does not negate what another person has said.

What the use of at least does here is to find a minimum positive aspect in the whole situation, and express it. It is therefore a powerful linguistic weapon for the positive thinker.

As an added bonus, using at least often implies that the person making the comment (person A in the above conversation) lacks the minimum positive in question. In other words, B's reply implies two things:

1. I have friends, which is more important than being stupid and ugly.
2. You don't have any friends.

It can also be used to offer sympathy and support. Consider the following example.

A: What a disaster! I lost my job and I'll probably have to sell my house!
B: At least your family still loves you.

Depending on how you read it, B could be implying that his family does not love him, but the meaning here depends on the context. If B's voice is angry instead of supportive, B could be feeling sorry for himself.

The trick for students in distinguishing the difference is looking at the subject of the first sentence. If it has a negative implication for the listener, then at least is probably being used for defense. If the implication is neutral to or does not affect the listener, then at least is probably being used as an example of positive thinking.
Using at least to "Cover Your Tracks"

The second use of at least as a conversational is not related to minimums at all. It is used instead to "cover one's tracks" after saying something that is hanging in the air and may not be true. Nobody likes to make mistakes and sound stupid, but everybody speaks without thinking, so this use of at least is also very common.

- Canada is the biggest country in the world, at least that's what my teacher told me.

In this case, the first clause is spoken, but then, whether because of a few frowns from listeners or because the teacher may have made a mistake, the student adds the second clause believing that she may have been misinformed. The statement is in fact incorrect (Canada is the world's second biggest country), so the student was smart to add the second clause.

This is an extremely Canadian linguistic structure. Canadians as a rule do not like to make flat statements of fact that invite the possibility of disagreement, and so we often cover ourselves by shifting the burden of responsibility for the opinion to our sources.

- That guy is a real idiot, at least that's what I heard from his ex-wife.

In this sentence, the speaker makes a strong statement, and then realizes that, if it were interpreted the wrong way or if the wrong person heard it, there might be some sort of confrontation.

This expression can be very useful to an ESL student. For someone learning a new language, sentences seldom come out as intended. Using at least gives a student the opportunity to transfer responsibility for mistakes, as in the following example.

- She said she wanted to paint my nose, at least I think that's what she said.

Using the least... to Express Disappointment

The least... is used in situations of complaint and disappointment with a person or situation. It is similar to the use of at least to be defensive. The following two sentences have the same meaning.

- You could have at least sent me a card.

- The least you could have done was (to) send me a card.

In this case, perhaps someone is lying in his/her hospital bed one week after being in a traffic accident and, after a long wait, the "best friend" comes in for a visit. The excuse for not visiting sooner was a busy schedule. The injured friend wants to express disappointment. The least [subject] + can + do is often used for such expressions of disappointment with another person.

A: What do you mean I never do housework?!? I'm busy, what do you expect me to do?
B: Well, the least you could do is (to) wash the dishes occasionally.

Native English speakers often omit the infinitive to in this expression. Students will wonder why the verb be is used with the simple form, but in fact this use of the simple form is really just an infinitive.

Using the least... to Express Appreciation

The least is also used with a first-person subject to show return appreciation for a past service after receiving a 'thank you' from that someone who either helped you in the past or to whom you feel indebted to in some other way.

A: I really appreciate your helping me study for that test.
B: Not at all. It was the least I could do after you helped me on the last one.

If you are an English language learner, please feel free to create your own example from any of these expressions, and post it using the Comments feature. I will let you know whether or not it is correct, and, if it isn't, how to fix it.

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Saturday, March 21, 2009

As Far As...

As Far As...Go

Sometimes, for students learning English, it can be difficult to know how to introduce a new idea to a topic that other people are discussing.

The phrase as far as...go is used to refer to a general topic about which you want to say something specific. It is often, but not always, followed by a contrasting pair of details. Make sure that the verb go in this expression agrees with the subject. In the examples below, I have put the subject agreements in orange.

- As far as places to live go, Beaverville is a nice place, but it's not what you'd call a capital of excitement.

- As far as thinking about my future goes, I'd rather just enjoy myself right now and worry about my career later.

As Far As...Know

There is another use of as far as that relates to expressing opinion, but it is used in different situations than those above. As far as...know is used to refer to a personal opinion on something the subject has not had direct experience with, or for something on which my information has not been updated. There is sometimes an implication that the subject may be missing information.

- As far as I know, he's still single. (ie. the last time I heard about him, he wasn't married yet, but he may be married now)

- As far as I know, War & Peace is a great book. (ie. I've heard many people say it's a great book, but I haven't read it, so I don't know)

- As far as my parents know, I'm at a movie with my friend. (ie. I'm really on a date with my girlfriend but my parents think I'm at the moview because I didn't give them all the information)

There is a common error made by Korean learners when trying to use this expression. They will sometimes use As I know instead of As far as I know. As I know has a completely different connotation. It sounds pretentious and patronizing, as if the speaker thinks s/he knows everything.

The frequest use of this phrase among Canadians is an interesting reflection of the Canadian psyche. In my opinion, Canadians use it a lot because they want to be diplomatic, especially when speaking to a group of people, and this expression allows them to state something they think is a fact but remain open that someone else might not share the same view.

As Far As...Be Concerned

Using as far as with be concerned refers to a personal opinion that is likely to differ from that of the listener (or someone else) regarding the chosen topic. It is not necessarily an opinion that is supported by evidence. In fact, it often depends on direct experience, rather than evidence.

- As far as I'm concerned, War & Peace is a great book.

- As far as I'm concerned, that guy is an idiot.

- As far as my friend is concerned, Barrack Obama is going to eliminate poverty in the United States.

As Far As...Can Tell

As far as...can tell is used when making judgements based only on one's own perception, usually based on one of the five senses (sight, sound, smell, taste, touch). Please note that this use of the verb tell is not the one that means speak or say, it is the one that means notice or ascertain.

- As far as I can tell, he weighs about seventy kilograms.

- As far as I can tell, Sarah forgot to put salt in this sauce. It tastes bland.

As far as I can tell is more similar to as far as I know than it is to as far as I'm concerned because both deal with perception based on a lack of knowledge or personal experience. The difference between the two is that, with as far as I know, the opinion is usually based on what the speaker has heard, whereas with as far as I can tell, the opinion is usually based on what the speaker can see or perceive. Consider the following examples:

- As far as I know, War & Peace is a great book. (ie. I've heard many times from people that it's a great book)

- As far as I can tell, War & Peace is a great book. (ie. I read the back cover of the book, which says it's a great book)

Intangible Noun with ~wise

We use a noun with ~wise to capture something of the same sense as as far as ... goes. Similar to as far as...goes, it is used to refer to a general subject about which the speaker wants to go into specifics, often to weigh the pros and cons of a dilemma. This structure is always used with intangible nouns (you can't use tablewise in a sentence!) that speak of properties or qualities of things and situations.

- As far as location goes, the house is nice but as far as price goes, we can't really afford it.

- Locationwise, the house is nice, but pricewise we can't really afford it.

- Trafficwise, that company's website is one of the leaders in the industry.

If you are an English language learner, please feel free to create your own example any of these expressions, and post it using the Comments feature. I will let you know whether or not it is correct, and, if it isn't, how to fix it.

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Sunday, December 16, 2007

Just Happen To / Might As Well

Many unplanned events happen in our lives, and we often make decisions quickly, based on those events. The following two expressions are used in these kinds of situations. Both expressions are extremely common among native English speakers, but seldom used by English language learners.

Just Happen To

The conversational just happen to is used in situations where the subject of the sentence is involved in a coincidence. In a coincidence, there is no plan for the action in the main verb to occur.

The simple present & simple past forms of just happen to are followed only with an unintentional verb (ie. to see, to be, to have).

- I just happened to see a hat on sale so I decided to buy it.

- The hat happened to be on sale, and I happened to have enough money, so I bought it. (the speaker didn't plan for the hat to be on sale

If the main verb is intentional (i.e. go), the form of the verb becomes be + ing to reflect a moment in time.

I just happened to be walking by the bar when I heard music inside.

My friend happened to be going downtown the same time as I was, so we decided to go together.

I just happened to be making a phone call when the meteorite struck the phone booth.

Might As Well

The expression might as well is used when all the circumstances surrounding a certain situation are so perfect that the decision to do the verb becomes almost inevitable. It is often used with just happen to. The decision to do the verb is usually spontaneous, rather than planned. It is the structure we use at the exact moment a decision is made about a course of action to be followed.

It is always followed by the root verb in present. It is not used in the past to indicate coincidence. If the speaker wants to express a past action, the preceding verb can be in the simple past.

- I just happened to see a hat on sale so I thought I might as well buy it.

(i.e. I needed a hat, I had enough money in my pocket, the hat was on sale -- all the circumstances were perfect).

- I'm already wet from the rain, it's quite hot today, and the water in the pool is warm. I might as well go swimming.

- I just happened to be in the neighbourhood so I figured I might as well pay her a visit.

Also, might as well is used sometimes in situations where there is no good alternative to a number of choices, and the speaker makes a choice about which s/he is not completely happy.

- I don't really care if we go to a movie or to the park or stay home. We might as well just stay home.

In this use of might as well (an uninteresting choice), it is possible to use a past form. In such cases, might as well is followed by have + root verb.

- Today, I got in a car accident and I lost my wallet. I might as well have stayed home.

If you are an English language learner, please feel free to create your own example using one or both of these expressions, and post it using the Comments feature. I will let you know whether or not it is correct, and, if it isn't, how to fix it.

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